If you’ve read anything about the version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that the Minnesota Opera is presenting in the next couple of weeks, you already know that it’s unlike any other Magic Flute you’ll ever see. But until you’ve actually seen it, you won’t appreciate how truly different and original this production is. It is no understatement to say that this is a bizarrely, mind-blowingly imaginative re-interpretation of the Mozart classic, one that pulls history, technology, symbolism, and storytelling together to create an experience that is totally contemporary in every way, yet full of historical echoes and clever embellishments that are at once enchanting, disturbing, and—at times—ludicrous.
Opera traditionalists might bristle at the fact that 90 percent of this production is actually a movie—or, to be more precise, a projection of moving images on a white screen with which the singers interact. Ledges and swiveled doors at different levels allow the singers to appear at various places on the screen, defying gravity while the projection plays on around them. Much of the time there is little for the singers to do except stand still on a platform and sing, but the experience is anything but static, because the animation onscreen is full of motion and energy. Even when the actors are standing still, the animation is often designed to create the illusion of motion. For instance, The Queen of the Night in this production is a giant spider that engulfs the entire stage with her limbs—but the only visible part of the singer is her head; the rest is a big cartoon.
The overall experience is more like watching a movie than seeing an opera, but the magic of it is that the integration of live performance is so seamless and elegant that you sometimes can’t tell which is which. At other times, the animators deliberately remind you that you’re basically watching an elaborate cartoon—for instance, when the top half of a character is visible, and their bottom half is doing the can-can. I can’t comment on the singing because I only saw the final rehearsal, when many of the singers were holding back to save their voices, but it hardly matters. The singing isn’t what you’re going to be talking about on the way back to your car.
Aesthetically, this production—created by Komische Oper Berlin—draws from several styles and time periods. The quietest narrative moments mimic a 1920s silent movie, and there are various references to German film and literature—particularly the servant Monostatos as a character out of Nosferatu—but there’s also plenty of imagery from animé, comics, political cartoons, puppetry, and steampunk, as well as a phantasmagoria of fantastical images that swell and burst on the screen with so much imagination and life that it’s hard not to be wowed.
Then again, by relying primarily on computer-generated animation for most of the imagery, the production team has pretty much removed most of the limitations of live theater. They can throw anything they want up there on the screen, and that’s precisely what they’ve done. To their credit, however, they do allow Papageno, the opera’s comic foil, to have some fun, and the actors’ interactions with the imagery onscreen is often diabolically clever.
In recent years, The Magic Flute has become the A Midsummer Night's Dream of the opera canon, in that it is now apparently ripe for the wildest of interpretations. Julie Taymor’s outlandish Metropolitan Opera version is only one example. Kenneth Branagh released a film version last year set in the trenches of World War I, and people have set it in a hippie commune, a Wild West saloon, and even on the moon. Symbolically, the story is about an epic battle between darkness and light, so using film—an art form of darkness and light—makes plenty of sense. And the stylized cartoonishness of the presentation is wholly in keeping with Mozart’s inherent playfulness, so—though it seems outlandish, and even crazy at times—the logic behind the production holds together.
Whether you will like it or not remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, you’re never going to forget this production. It’s wild, in the best of all possible ways.
The Minnesota Opera’s The Magic Flute runs from April 12-27 at the Ordway, 612-333-6669